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Biden predicts Russia will ‘move in’ on Ukraine, while Zelensky downplays invasion threat

President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) and U.S. President Joe Biden have made contradicting statements during their public appearances on Jan. 19. (Ukrainian president press service/The White House)

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Jan. 19 that he thought that Russia would invade Ukraine, giving the strongest acknowledgment of the invasion threat so far.

“I’m not sure that (Russian President Vladimir Putin) is certain what he’s going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said at the press conference on the occasion of his one year in office.

Russia would pay “a serious, dear price” both immediately and in the long-term perspective, should it further invade Ukraine, he added.

However, Biden also said that NATO will lack unity and quarrel over response if Russia does something less than a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“It depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having a fight about what to do and not to do, but if they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the force they massed on the border, it is going to be disaster for Russia,” Biden said.

Biden added that Russia has “overwhelming” military superiority over Ukraine and will prevail “over time,” but will lose a lot of lives.

Biden did stress that the U.S. is prepared to act if the Kremlin launches a direct attack on Ukraine.

“If they’re going to invade, they’re going to pay. Their banks are not going to be able to deal in dollars,” he said.

“I’ve already shipped over $600 million worth of sophisticated defensive equipment to Ukrainians,” he added.

On Jan. 19, the U.S. confirmed the allocation of $200 million in military aid to Ukraine, with $300 million to be allocated at a later date.

Biden also added that there’s “room for negotiation” and pointed out that Ukraine is very unlikely to join NATO soon because of its internal issues.

Following Biden’s press conference, and the media reaction to his suggestion that “minor incursion” might elicit a lesser answer, the White House released a statement by Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasizing that the U.S. will react to any invasion of Ukraine, as well as to other acts of aggression:

“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” the statement reads. 

“President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”

Zelensky to Ukrainians: ‘Keep calm’

Biden’s statement posed a stark contrast to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s video address to the nation, released only hours earlier. In it, Zelensky called upon Ukrainians to cease the panic, and assured that everything was “under control.”

It was the first time that Zelensky addressed the threat of the Russian invasion since Russia started its military buildup in late 2021.

“What’s new? Isn’t this the reality we’ve been living in for eight years?” said Zelensky. “Didn’t the invasion start in 2014? These risks have long existed. They didn’t increase. What increased is the craze (in the news). Our land is not being under attack now — but your nerves are. They’re trying to make you feel anxiety all the time.”

Both statements come at a time of increased tension. According to CNN, Russia has now deployed more than 127,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. 

The ongoing buildup is expected to culminate with up to 175,000 Russian soldiers being concentrated in the region for a military action against Ukraine, which may be launched in early 2022, according to Western and Ukrainian intelligence.

On Jan. 19, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv and met with Ukraine’s top officials, amid the ongoing Russian threat.

Blinken warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine at “very short notice.”

“We know that there are plans in place to increase that force even more on very short notice, and that gives President Putin the capacity, also on very short notice, to take further aggressive action against Ukraine,” the U.S. diplomat said during his meeting with U.S. Embassy staff.

Blinken said that further U.S. military aid is “already in the pipeline” should Russia attack.

Blinken will now fly to Berlin to meet with the German leadership on Jan. 20, after which he will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Jan. 21.

“The secretary’s travel and consultations are part of the diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the tension caused by Russia’s military buildup and continued aggression against Ukraine,” said Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department.

Prior, high-level negotiations between Russia and the West, held between Jan. 10-12, failed to yield results. Blinken expressed concerns over whether Russia truly intends to reach a diplomatic solution or whether it is attempting to create a situation where Russia can “justify” its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s video address to the Ukrainian nation, published on Jan. 20.

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